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Transferable skills, dedicated mindset

  • Stethoscope

    Transferable skills, dedicated mindset

    CVM researchers, clinicians, and staff volunteer time and tools to combat COVID-19.

The recent COVID-19 outbreak is yet another profound example of the strong ties between human and veterinary medicine. The pandemic illustrates the role of One Health — the relationship between humans, animals, and the environment we share — like few other diseases have before. In these disruptive times, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) faculty, staff, and students are stepping in to volunteer their time, expertise, and personal protective equipment (PPE) to help the hospitals at the U of M and the local community save human lives.

Our College’s track record of understanding, valuing, and promoting One Health, and for developing successful treatments for pathogens that are passed between animals, position us to make an impact. Today, the human branch of the One Health triad urgently needs our help, and the CVM is already heeding the call. 

Chasing down antiviral therapies

Matthew Aliota headshot
Matthew Aliota, PhD

When he realized how quickly the novel coronavirus was spreading in January, Matthew Aliota, PhD, an assistant professor in the CVM’s Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, started searching for a way in which he could put his skills to use to help slow the pandemic. 

Aliota works with highly pathogenic viruses, particularly those that spread to humans through ticks and mosquitos. He was previously heavily involved in the research response to the Zika virus that continues to spread across the Americas. 

“I have training in both biodefense and emerging infectious disease,” he says, “and my research program at the U of M is dedicated to viruses that require high containment, so my expertise is well-suited to address a public health threat like COVID-19.” 

Aliota says the role he could play became apparent in March, when cases of COVID-19 spiked in the United States. “It was clear that testing was an issue.”

Ryan A. Langlois, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology at the U’s Medical School, studies influenza and how the virus is able to escape seasonal immunity by rapidly adapting. When COVID-19 became a global pandemic, Langlois shifted his focus to helping coordinate clinical trials at the U of M which will help scientists better understand the novel coronavirus as well as evaluating three drug therapies that may be successful in inactivating the virus. The team must extract RNA from swabs taken from people enrolled in the trials before they can determine the impact of each therapy. But extracting RNA from a sample is time-consuming work. That’s where experts such as Aliota become indispensable members of the time-pressed team. 

My research program at the U of M is dedicated to viruses that require high containment, so my expertise is well-suited to address a public health threat like COVID-19.

Matthew Aliota, PhD

Aliota is collaborating with Langlois to process samples. His efforts will help mitigate sample build-up, accelerating crucial analysis that could lead to COVID-19–fighting drugs. “These efforts are essential for real-time decision making for patients enrolled in these critical studies,” says Langlois. 

Aliota didn’t stop at donating his skills. When personal protection equipment (PPE) became scarce, Aiota began making calls to University leadership to volunteer the masks he had in his lab. Last month, he handed off roughly 270 N95 respirator masks to the U of M Health Emergency Response Office (HERO) from his lab alone. The office distributes the gear to hospitals including M Health Fairview, which has received thousands of gloves and masks as a result of such donations.

Hospitals helping hospitals 

Donations to HERO like Aliota’s were made by units across the College, including the Veterinary Medical Center (VMC), which pitched in 1,200 surgical caps, 80 N95 respirator masks, and 2,450 surgical masks. In lieu of this PPE, VMC clinicians and technicians have adapted to using homemade cloth masks when caring for animals. 

Vet staff collecting cloth masks
Senior Lab Technician, Amy Giannoble

Nearly a dozen clinicians, staff, and some of their family members took to their sewing machines to supply the hospital with nearly 200 of the alternative masks. This volunteer effort made it possible for the hospital to redirect their PPE to HERO without foregoing protection from infection. 

Vicki Skala
Vicki Skala, a veterinary technician at the VMC

“A local company producing large numbers of face shields has offered to make some available to the VMC,” says David Lee, DVM, MBA, director of the VMC, “and while we are grateful, we need to make sure the greatest needs are being met on the human side.” 

Equipping the VMC’s clinicians and techs with cloth masks has allowed our staff to stay safe while continuing to save four-legged patients that need emergency and urgent care. “Our goal is to make sure that everyone has multiple masks,” says Jackie Ziven-LeCount, BS, CVT, a veterinary technician in the hospital’s anesthesia service. “We want to make sure that we slow the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible and still meet the needs of our patients and their owners.”

The exterior of VMC during COVID-19

The view from the Veterinary Medical Center's parking lot

The window at Piper Equine Hospital during COVID-19

The view from inside Piper Equine Hospital

The VMC has also been trying to spread some light to our community in these disruptive times. Paper hearts have become a symbol of community during the COVID-19 pandemic, a simple effort that silently shows support for anyone who may feel alone during this time of isolation. Sara Orlando, CVT, and Ellen Skalla, CVT, veterinary technicians in the Emergency and Critical Care service, led the effort to bring the comforting symbol to the front windows of the VMC, where clients and passersby are greeted with a splash of technicolor hearts that let them know they are not alone. Recently, Piper Equine Hospital also joined in this movement, posting their own display of paper hearts. 

I have never been prouder of our team.

David Lee, DVM, MBA

“It’s a wonderful reminder to our clients and to everyone coming into the VMC that we will get through this together,” Lee says. “For us, working with animals is a lifelong calling. Our clinicians and veterinary staff have worked tirelessly over the past few weeks to protect the health and safety of one another and the community we serve in the face of unfolding challenges. I have never been prouder of our team.” 

Across the street from the VMC, The Raptor Center’s (TRC) specialized clinic for birds of prey is pitching in, as well. TRC may have a small team in their clinic, but they know every bit helps in the collaborative effort to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. TRC donated 34 disposable gowns, roughly 70 pairs of boot covers, and seven boxes of protective face masks to the University COVID Action Network, which will distribute the supplies to Minnesota agencies. Additionally, The Raptor Center has over 40 boxes of nitrile gloves and a box of surgical caps on reserve ready to donate as needed.

TRC’s staff is able to continue wildlife rehabilitation thanks to the dedicated efforts of its industrious volunteer team. The center always depends on the hard work and generous time commitment of more than 300 volunteers to assist with the clinic, education efforts, and more. But recently, in lieu of coming in to volunteer, TRC’s support network banded together to sew homemade cloth masks for the continued safety of on-site TRC staff. 

"It is heartwarming to see staff and volunteers finding new ways to safely care for our raptor patients while allowing us to contribute needed supplies to the medical workers on the front lines,” says TRC Executive Director Julia Ponder, DVM, MPH.

As this situation continues to evolve daily, our College remains dedicated to finding ways to devote our specific expertise and equipment to the effort. “This COVID-disrupted lifestyle offers an opportunity to reflect on how we at the CVM have chosen to respond,” says Interim Dean Laura Molgaard, DVM. “I am absolutely certain that our community has been capitalizing on our strengths in many ways. I continue to be impressed by the amazing things our faculty, staff, and students are doing in an era of great uncertainty.”